Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Socialists' Generosity With Other People's Money

Pike River a Black Hole for Public Money

Martin van Beynen

Pike River families have stood for the first time at the wall that separates them from the men they lost in the coal mine nine years ago.
OPINION: Any discussion of the effort to re-enter the Pike River Mine, where 29 miners lost their lives on November 19, 2010, is going to be fraught.

Who could quibble with the wishes of the families of those killed to retrieve the remains of their loved ones and get answers to some of the pressing questions about the accident?

Perhaps the prospect of accountability is now a forlorn hope but who knows what will be found in the depths of the mine.  No-one would want to deprive the families of the finality they seek except for one thing.

That is, of course, cost and the opportunities and benefits lost by spending large amounts of taxpayer money on Pike River rather than something else.  Many good reasons, apart from the obvious benefits to the families connected to the mine, can be cited for spending the money.

Although blame goes far and wide, in many ways the state failed to monitor the mine properly and allowed dodgy practices to continue unheeded.
It therefore owes a responsibility to the victims and their families, especially those who lost their main breadwinners.

Lessons learned from the recovery effort could lead to safety improvements and save lives in the future both in New Zealand and overseas.

The recovery is pumping money back into the West Coast economy and, if successful, will satisfy a national interest about what happened.  Some worthy counter-arguments can also be noted.

Not all the Pike River families wholeheartedly support the effort.  For instance Marion Curtin, the mother of dead miner Richard Holling, told our reporter Michael Wright she finds the idea abhorrent.  "I don't understand [the pro-re-entry] view. To me it's an irrational one. Why they think there are bodies to bring out just beggars belief as far as I'm concerned. The amount of money that's been spent I think is disgusting. To me it's just sacrilege. It's like grave-robbing. It's awful."

It could certainly be argued the miners are buried together in a mass grave that could be marked appropriately and provide the touchstone the families need.  The rest of the debate then comes down to money.

One of the problems is the open-ended task of the Pike River Recovery Agency.

Getting under way in early 2018, the agency was initially funded at about $22 million for three years. Its allocated funding increased to $36m last year and to the end of June this year the agency has spent about $18m. It expects to spend another $12m up to June 30, 2020 but it's a good bet its work won't be done by then.

Progress, as you would expect with intolerance of any risk, has been painfully slow. Miners broke through the 30 metres seal and re-entered the drift on May 21 and work is now under way on another seal 170m into the drift. On completion the drift will be tidied up for access by mining vehicles and equipment.

The agency wants to install a remote ventilation plug at the end of the drift to maintain a barrier between the atmosphere over the roof fall and the fresh air in which drift recovery and forensic examination work will take place.

On September 13 the agency provided a copy of the final execution plan for re-entry and recovery of the drift to WorkSafe for review.  The plan sounds expensive and it probably will be although agency chief executive Dave Gawn says it's been costed in the latest estimates.

Estimates are one thing, and as anyone building a house will know, estimates, even if they allow for contingencies, are rarely generous enough.  And that is really the problem. The Government has committed to an ambitious project without knowing how much it will cost. It has already spent too much to pull back and must carry on whatever the cost because it can't let the spending to date be wasted.

The agency is no doubt staffed by dedicated and skilled people who want to complete their mission but at the moment they essentially have a blank cheque.  That's why I think the decision to re-enter was ill-considered and driven partly by an emotional Labour Party tie to its roots with the miners of the West Coast. That's all fine, but it should not have used taxpayer money to indulge its sentimentality.

A compensation payment to the Pike River families and a finite sum given to the West Coast in memory of the miners who died at Pike River would have been a more fitting and wiser use of the money.

This idea will not please people like the admirable Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse, who have fought valiantly for re-entry. Their stories are heart-rending but should not determine distributions from the public purse, nor be allowed to dominate the unquestioning media coverage.

Pike River minister Andrew Little, in a statement stronger on emotion than reason, says the recovery of the Pike River mine drift is a "simple, necessary and long overdue act of justice".  It is also a potential black hole for public money. 

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